Washed Out - Paracosm
Record Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: August 13, 2013
When Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, released his debut LP, Within and Without, it seemed that at least one of the many bearers of the chillwave standard would go on to transcend the silly name and silly sounds to be genuinely appreciated for some time. That debut still stands as being among the best records to come out of the chillwave deluge that the independent music world was subject to after Animal Collective and Panda Bear rode the crest of proto-chill sounds to become critical and fan favorites. Fast forward, and that same wave has receded, leaving AnCo behind with their worst record in over five years, and the detritus of opportunistic genre hoppers like Vacationer to be kicked aside as you look for anything of worth that the tide might have deposited. You would do best to ignore the second Washed Out full-length Paracosm, because it offers little more than a self-parody of what made the first record so enchanting and the genre so derided.
Within and Without was the work of a man who was familiar with and had a firm grip on making unobtrusive music that was equally suited as a soundtrack to sleeping on summer bus rides as it was to lounging in bed or poolside. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a record with a whole lot of emotional range, but it was certainly more adeptly produced than contemporaries like Teen Daze or any number of bedroom-ridden imitators. Paracosm, in contrast to Greene’s naturally relaxed soundtrack-esque debut, clamors for attention before shirking away like a child who thinks he wants involvement with the adult conversations but realizes he is not not quite prepared for the heady talk of his parents. If Greene had chosen one path over the other, this review might have a different tone than it does. When the music makes a surprising choice to boldly grab for attention, the same incomprehensible ephemeral drone of a voice crops up to bring the songs halfway to the pleasant background of Within and Without. The vocals bear a surprising weight considering how lightly they lay on top of the songs of the debut, but instead of making the songs more robust, they come off as dead weight that would be better if it was heaved off. Lyrically, Greene doesn’t do himself any favors, because he deals in empty pleasantries that neither add nor subtract anything of substance from the record. It would have been a small task to rewrite and subvert lyrics to be more supportive of the adult perspective on childhood, but no such support for the records theme is readily forthcoming.
Stringing harps and chirping birds are among the unsightly blemishes of the record, bookending it with some of the least inspired cheese imaginable, as though the name Paracosm (“childs fantasy world”) deserved to be taken at face value and with the least effort possible. Instead of exploring the sounds that might populate a world built from imagination and wonder, Greene it seems, is content to think that a child would be left gasping with awe at the sound of a bird. Those moments are played for cheap laughs, as though Greene is too afraid to commit himself fully to the absurd possibilities of what the records chosen title would suggest. Even the synths lifted from a dollar store “space gun” on “All I Know,” brimming with the possibility of childhood memories, is left alone and simply sounds out of place, as though dropped there solely for its ridiculous sound and not for any other reason.
The allure of chillwave was its ability to play 80s cheese straight, without the damning backhand of “nostalgia.” On Parocosm, Ernest Greene tips his hand too early, too obviously: there’s not a lot to make you believe that he genuinely finds these sounds beautiful without some sort of winking hipness. That snarky feeling condemns the record to a fate worse than mediocrity: parody, a lazy prod at his first record and the fans it earned. You’re not listening while climbing the tree in your backyard in your mid-20s, you’re rolling your eyes at the dork who thinks the jarring synthesizer runs on “It All Feels Alright” are doing anything more than drawing attention to how silly the record really is. And then “Weightless” does the most to live up to its name with anything resembling a commitment to sincerity, releasing you briefly to float on top of the melody and the wide-eyed wonder Greene manages to successfully evoke for the first time on the record. It’s a tempting moment that is quickly squashed by a return to the failures which came before it.
It might sound equally silly to compare a full-length record to a fifteen minute animated TV show, but Adventure Time deals in fondly remembered childhood perspectives with a straight face and does it exceptionally well. In an alternate universe, Paracosm should have felt as though it could fit alongside Adventure Time as the musical representation of an adult avoiding passing judgment on his own childish impulses, because that sincerity is what elevates the show into something that has inspired a cult following among all age groups. Instead, Greene fails to realize that there is emotional value in exploring a child’s fantasy, and he chooses the cheapest sounding, laziest possible route to mimicking only the most superficial components to create a pseudo-nostalgic, sardonic gallery of childhood vistas.
It’s a failure that is insulting and infuriating, raising mocking defenses that wouldn’t arise if it was sincere in its pursuit of the fantastic. Sneering often seems the only recourse when listening to Paracosm, as though Greene has succeeded in making you feel like an eleven year old, the type of kid who is aware his fantasies and dreams and play are childish but doesn’t want to come off that way. So instead, he sets himself up as the “mature” one, laughing at his friends and younger siblings, all the while pining to join them without a mask of irony. Continuing to doze off to Within and Without doesn’t sound so constraining when Greene is so obviously averse to actually engaging earnestly with his, and your, emotions and memories.Paracosm is just another example of a chillwave stalwart being brought low as time has passed, but the collapse here feels like an attack on those who might deign to think that their childhoods, silly as it may have been in their heads, were actually pretty exciting.
Wow, did not expect such a severe review to come against this record. I throughly enjoy Paracosm, largely because of how gorgeously produced it is and how it's driving him further away from the staples of chillwave/how chillwave should sound. I think the whole idea you presented that "there’s not a lot to make you believe that he genuinely finds these sounds beautiful without some sort of winking hipness" summed up a lot of Within and Without in my opinion, although I do enjoy most of that record still. Songs like "Echoes" and "Far Away" didn't work in my opinion because of the '80s cheesiness getting overbearing and his droning voice making it a bit too close to aimless, ambient music. At least on here, even if the lyrics are a bit questionable, there's a sense of more emotion and more sounds, most of which didn't really feel unnecessary or flashy to me. At the least, it's a good record for bike riding and definitely is a perfect album for summer in my book.
While certainly not one of the best releases this year, I wholeheartedly disagree with this review. It's a tad unfair, especially with the recurrence of the "silly" adjective. I guess I just don't see where you're coming from. To everyone prematurely dismissing this album because of this review, I'd say it's still definitely worth checking out.